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‘Discovery Rule’ Allows Floating Statute of Limitations for Some Child Sexual Abuse Victims


Key point 10-16.4. The statute of limitations specifies the deadline for filing a civil lawsuit. Lawsuits cannot be brought after this deadline has passed. There are a few exceptions that have been recognized by some courts: (1) The statute of limitations for injuries suffered by a minor begins to run on the minor's 18th birthday. (2) The statute of limitations does not begin to run until an adult survivor of child sexual molestation "discovers" that he or she has experienced physical or emotional suffering as a result of the molestation. (3) The statute of limitations does not begin to run until an adult with whom a minister or church counselor has had sexual contact "discovers" that his or her psychological damages were caused by the inappropriate contact. (4) The statute of limitations is suspended due to fraud or concealment of a cause of action.

A Washington state appellate court ruled that the "discovery rule," which extends the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse claims until victims "discover" that their emotional injuries were caused by the abuse, enabled an adult woman to sue her former church for the child abuse she suffered as a minor based on the acts of a volunteer youth worker. From 2002 through 2004 an adolescent female (the "victim") was sexually abused by an adult youth group leader (the "defendant") at her church. In 2007 she turned 18, and the next year she was married. Over the next several years she experienced sexual dysfunction and a lack of intimacy, and she and her husband argued about whether to have children. Her symptoms, including flashbacks, guilt, and other emotional problems, were worse than she had ever experienced, and the marital problems continued until their divorce in 2011. The victim was also confused about her sexuality. She engaged in a sexual relationship with another woman that also caused significant confusion in her life. The victim also experienced problems at work, and struggled to reconnect with her religion. The church was no longer a comforting influence in her life.

In 2011, at age 22, the victim began seeing a psychologist, and it was then, she later alleged, that she realized for the first time the serious effect of the abuse on her adult relationships, sexuality, work, and spirituality. The psychologist helped her understand how the sexual abuse she suffered as an adolescent triggered symptoms based on the different, new life events that she was experiencing.

In 2012 the victim sued the defendant. A trial court dismissed the lawsuit on the ground that it was filed after the expiration of the deadline prescribed by the statute of limitations. The victim appealed.

A state appeals court reversed the trial court's dismissal of the plaintiff's lawsuit, and directed the case to proceed to trial. The Washington statute of limitations for child sexual abuse civil claims states:

All claims or causes of action based on intentional conduct brought by any person for recovery of damages for injury suffered as a result of childhood sexual abuse shall be commenced within the later of the following periods … (c) Within three years of the time the victim discovered that the act caused the injury for which the claim is brought: PROVIDED, That the time limit for commencement of an action under this section is tolled for a child until the child reaches the age of eighteen years.

The court noted that "this special statute of limitations is unique in that it does not begin running when the victim discovers an injury. Instead, it specifically focuses on when a victim of sexual abuse discovers the causal link between the abuse and the injury for which the suit is brought … . This is because the legislature specifically anticipated that victims may know they are suffering emotional harm or damage but not be able to understand the connection between those symptoms and the abuse."

According to this statute, the victim's lawsuit was time-barred unless it was filed within three years of her discovery that her many emotional problems were caused by the abuse she suffered as a minor.

The court pointed out that "the victim claimed that she did not understand the full effect of the childhood sexual abuse until she entered counseling as an adult. Although she had dealt with serious symptoms of her abuse for many years, she presented evidence that, until recently, she was not aware that her new, adult difficulties with her marriage, her work, and connecting with religion were caused by the childhood abuse." It was not until she sought counseling as an adult in 2011 that she "began to realize how seriously affected she was by the abuse "in relationships, sexuality, work, and spirituality and established the causal connection."

The court concluded that there was sufficient evidence that the plaintiff had not connected her emotional problems with her abuse as a minor until she sought counseling in 2011 to allow her claims to proceed to trial. It observed:

In summary, the plaintiff argues that she experienced new or more serious injuries from her sexual abuse when she was married, became sexually active, discussed having children with her husband, got a job, and tried to reconnect with the church. She presented evidence that these injuries are new or more serious because she did not understand how her sexual abuse would affect these parts of her life until she actually had these experiences and entered into sexual abuse counseling [relationship with a psychologist] in 2011. This evidence … viewed in a light most favorable to the victim, demonstrates that material facts are in dispute. Thus, a jury must resolve the factual issues and determine whether the statute of limitations bars her claims.

What This Means For Churches:

Most states recognize some variant of the discovery rule, enabling victims of child sexual abuse to file lawsuits years, and in some cases decades, after the abuse occurred. All that is needed is evidence that victims of childhood sexual abuse did not realize that their emotional dysfunctions were caused by the abuse. This "discovery" often is triggered by the initiation of a counseling relationship as an adult. B.R. v. Horsley, 345 P.3d 836 (Wash. App. 2015).

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  • October 24, 2016

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